Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Long ago reflections in the catacombs

Houghton Memorial Chapel at Wellesley College

Searching for the opening to the underground level of the century-old, granite-blocked, red-roofed Houghton Memorial Chapel, I noticed some stone steps leading downward, and I swung open the heavy wooden door.

When it closed behind me, the sound echoed, vibrating throughout the empty rooms.

An autumn midday,

I sought refuge within stone.

I found emptiness.

I walked down into the catacombs, and I would soon discover why this place was aptly named.

Catacombs were secret places for worship and burial in the early Christian communities of the Roman Empire.

Dark and cold, the white-walled passageway was eerily quiet.

Upstairs, the beautiful Protestant Chapel glowed with the polished veneer of intricately designed woods while light streamed through lovely stained-glass windows.

Here in the lower level were discarded wooden pews, old choir robes, stacked chairs and boxes filled with religious goods.

I passed the Buddhist and Hindu meditation room and the Muslim prayer room before I saw the Catholic sanctuary. When I walked into the room, I felt disoriented, since I expected an altar and statues of saints.

I saw a small man dressed in street clothes, sitting on a couch. Immediately, he stood up and introduced himself in a thick Spanish accent as Father Andres.

I sat down. The little priest dragged a small table into the center of the room and draped it with a white cloth. He lit a votive candle and placed ribbons in a prayer book, marking passages.

No trappings of church

Filled the underground chapel.

No saints but sinners.

Another man entered the room. He was very tall. Speaking with an Eastern European accent, he introduced himself to the priest as Igor.

We waited for others to arrive. No one came.

The holy man laid three Communion hosts on a silver plate and poured red wine into a clear beverage glass, instead of the usual golden or silver chalice. Only now I noticed an unframed print of Mary, a medieval portrait of the Queen of Heaven, propped up against the wall. The priest placed a long silken vestment cloth around his neck and began to pray.

The Mass began. I listened to the familiar words spoken with a foreign tongue, and they sounded strange and alien to me. The priest passed the book to Igor, and he read in his deep, heavily accented voice a passage from the Old Testament. Then he handed me the book, and I read the psalm, line by line. They repeated my words, and our voices became one, praising the Lord.

After the Scripture readings, Father Andres asked us to pray for the young women on campus. We closed our eyes and silently prayed.

Instead of kneeling in pews, we sat in orange plastic chairs while the priest broke the bread and blessed the wine. He placed the Communion host in my hand and passed me the glass. I put the bread in my mouth and sipped the warm wine, the body and blood of Christ.

The priest bade us go in peace.

I climbed out of the catacombs into the bright fall sunshine, welcoming the warmth and light around me. I thought about the half-hour service and the unlikely gathering: the little priest, a Cambridge psychologist from northern Spain; the Boston University history professor, an immigrant from the Czech Republic; and myself, an American-born student in pursuit of an undergraduate degree.

And like the early Christians, I had traveled to what seemed to me, a secretive underground place. Once there, I had worshipped with strangers whose accented voices proclaimed an identical faith. Our prayers had echoed through dark and empty passages and filled them with a beautiful sound.

All were invited.

Only a few came to pray.

All benefited.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Different strokes for different folks

There is a new species inhabiting our bay. They float and paddle like a duck, and sometimes they dip underwater.
The paddleboarders are here.

Driving down Fogland Road and onto the boat ramp, I expect to see some fishermen in powerboats trawling nearby; but on this windless, clear and bright sunny day, I spot a bevy of boarders standing up and paddle surfing in the Sakonnet.

Traditional paddleboarding is a surface water sport in which participants are propelled by a swimming motion using their arms while lying or kneeling on a paddleboard or surfboard in the ocean.
A spinoff of this sport is standup paddle surfing, which is usually performed in the open ocean with the participant paddling and surfing unbroken swells to cross between islands or journey from one coastal area to another.

Surfing the net, I find that standup paddleboarders can stroke for hours, and a twenty-mile race is only a warm-up for a well-trained waterman.
I had always associated paddleboarding with the South Pacific, but I conduct a quick search on Google and find a long list of businesses catering to this sport in our local waters.

In fact, I discover that Paddle Board Rhode Island is the 2013 Editors’ Choice winner in Yankee Magazine’s Travel Guide to New England, which is awarded by Yankee’s editors and contributors, who name select restaurants, lodgings and attractions in New England to the exclusive list.
“While it may be hard to create a business, the true challenge is in making it work, being good enough that it endures and brings people back. Those are the qualities we look for and reward when we say ‘Best of New England,’” wrote Yankee's editor Mel Allen.

Recognized as the “Best Way to See the Bay,” Paddle Boarding Rhode Island offers paddleboard tours, lessons, fitness classes and parties, including full moon paddles, dog standup paddleboarding tours, sunrise fitness sessions and paddling through downtown Providence.

According to their website, they describe standup paddling as a very different, healthy, spiritual and refreshing way to connect with the ocean and nature, and they paddle anywhere.​

“We have paddled as far and wide as Hawaii and Costa Rica, California, New Hampshire, Cape Cod and Florida. But this is the Ocean State. Experience Rhode Island's coast as you've never experienced it before.”

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Sunday best

Driving along country roads on a fall October day, I feel blessed to be a New Englander.

“The Summer comes and the Summer goes; / Wild-flowers are fringing the dusty lanes, / The swallows go darting through the fragrant rains, / Then, all of a sudden – it snows,” wrote nineteenth-century New Hampshire poet and travel writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich.

The leaves are beginning to turn, and my mind wanders back to childhood days when Sunday afternoons, especially those in autumn, were spent along back roads of neighboring towns.

Back then we abided by the Blue Laws, and business ceased. Consequently, Sunday was not just another day of the workweek.

At our house we followed a ritual that began early in the morning when we dressed in our Sunday best and went to church.

After service, my father would drive to the neighborhood store and buy a dozen sugar-dusted jelly doughnuts.

At home my mother set out the old brown teapot. With sticky fingers we held onto our teacup in one hand and the pastry in the other.

Right after breakfast, my mother and I put on one of my grandmother’s hand-sewn aprons and prepared a full-course Sunday dinner, consisting of soup, salad, entrĂ©e, vegetables, biscuits and dessert.

Then, as soon as the dishes were washed, we went on a Sunday ride. Each week we headed in a different direction to destination unknown.

In the fall, we stopped at farm stands and harvest festivals, filling the trunk with pumpkins, chrysanthemums and jugs of apple cider.

The last stop was always at some out-of-the-way place for a double-scoop of ice cream.

Sunday evenings were quiet times, spent finishing up homework assignments and playing board games before we climbed into bed.

Today Sundays have evolved into just another workday, and many folks can no longer look forward to a day of rest. Family members are always missing when we gather around the table at home or at the summer house because they have to work.

We still begin the Lord’s Day in church and prepare an extra special Sunday dinner. But we rarely ride around the countryside.

Mostly, we relax, while reading or watching Red Sox or Patriots games.

But whenever I feel overworked and overwrought by the fast-paced lifestyle we live these days, I think back with nostalgia to quieter, simpler times when Sundays were best.